President Obama rejected the Bush-era term Global War on Terrorism in a major speech justifying and announcing changes to his counterterrorism policies at the National Defense University on Thursday. "Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," Obama said. Never mind that the Obama administration stopped using the term in early 2009. When justifying his use of drone strikes in countries we're not at war with in a war against "networks" with a not-yet-clear end, it helps for Obama to use the rhetoric George W. Bush as a foil. At least he's not as bad as that guy, right?
In a background briefing on Obama's speech, senior administration officials explained the policies Obama would lay out in terms of their opposition to President Bush's. They said Obama "rejects the notion of a 'Global War on Terrorism.'" It's an "amorphous thing," an official said, and besides, terrorism is just a tactic. "We are defining this more narrowly than a Global War on Terror," and Obama doesn't want "a war footing in perpetuity." As for the methods used, drone strikes are "preferable" to large-scale military action like in the Iraq war, they said. Obama implicitly drew that contrast, too. Drone strikes are the best course of action when "where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight... or when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis." Yes, sometimes civilians die in drone strikes, he said. "For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Bush's critics were annoyed by rhetoric like "axis of evil" or "dead or alive," but the actual policies were more important than the words Bush used to describe them. And while Obama has waged war on some of Bush's phrases, he's still fighting Bush's global war on terror. In March 2009, The Washington Post reported that a Pentagon memo said the Office of Management and Budget insisted on the term "Overseas Contingency Operation" replace GWOT and term favored by Donald Rumsfeld, "the Long War." The White House denied that report. But they never used GWOT or adopted a new term. In his inaugural address, Obama described a "war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." On Thursday, Obama tried "a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks." But like his predecessor, Obama is going after a certain set of people who use that tactic. In his speech on Thursday, he was not justifying using drones in North Korea. Obama said of his no-name war, "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end." Like Bush, he did not say when that would be.
(Click here to read to the full speech text and highlights, click here for a handy flowchart of new legal definitions for drone strikes, and click here for an explainer on the secret court option Obama proposed as a means of enforcement.)